Cognitive audit for who you really are

Suppose we have all the tools, money and time to make a huge change in our life. What should we do with ourselves? Probably perform a cognitive audit for who we really are.  This particular post is not informative, but actionable. If you want some background information, please check here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

When to do a cognitive audit

You can spend an hour each day meditating and performing a cognitive audit, yet for the cognitive audit to be actionable certain conditions should better be met.

First and foremost, you should be ready to make a positive change. It is very easy to lie and assume that we are ready if the opportunity is big enough. Typically this is not so. If we are tired, or stressed, or traumatized, we probably do not have the energy for a big change. We need to rest before we make the change. Suppose we are emotionally unstable: euphoric after a huge gain, depressed after a huge loss, or surprised by some huge discovery. What are the chances to make smart and sound decisions? All of our thoughts will be biased. What if we have a fixed, close and important deadline? We will probably not have enough patience to invest in something really worthwhile.

If something destabilized our life, it makes sense to make a little time and generate a routine. It is very tempting to jump head-first into something huge, but the risks are too high. Quite often two or three weeks to rest and recuperate make all the difference. As long as our life is stable, we may be ready to move on.

Check the resources

It is critical to evaluate the allocation of resources. There are several important resources, and each task may require a different mix of resources. The most important resource is attention. Attention is hard to measure, but we do one thing and are focused on something else, we will probably not get very far. One of the sure ways to fail is making too many changes at the same time: we do not have the attention, and we do not know to attribute the events that happen to any particular change.

Time is also very important. Some things that are worthwhile may require around 90 min each day for many months. Others may require non-stop attention for a couple of weeks, or a couple of hours per week for several years. Most people willing to make a change, simply do not have time. There are some possible workarounds and tradeoffs to free time, so even if you do not currently have time you might be able to find it.

The financial resources often seem critical, yet there are many cheap or free options. Some initial money is needed simply to access the required facilities like a coach or a mentor and to buy the time to make a change. Further money can provide better guidance, reduce risks and improve the success rate, save time and emotional distress. The biggest things in our lives are not very expensive: love, food, and home are typically very cheap, so is internet access.

Calibrate your thinking

Most people tend to be emotional and overconfident. 90% of people consider themselves above average drivers. And 75% of fund managers consider their performance above average. A big minority tends to lack confidence and focus on fear. “Winnie the Pooh” is a great book for children. One of the things that makes it successful: each character is a very clear representation for a certain mental problem. The bear is addicted to honey and has no control over his life. The tiger is impulsive, hyperactive and narcissistic. The piglet is paranoic and somewhat hysteric. You can check out the characters here. By understanding their natural biases and adopting the life perspectives of other characters, they overcome the natural bias. This strategy that works well for imaginary characters, is also surprisingly effective in real life.

By analyzing our decisions and our mistakes we can determine the natural bias. Even a simple diary can do this trick. Most of our friends know who we really are and can provide further hints. Once we identify our natural bias, we can fight it by “anchoring” the opposite bias. For example, if we overspend we can start thinking about small amounts of money. Paying 20USD for a loaf of bread is a lot, and if we start from cheap things we will be less susceptible to pay for expensive things. If we do not like to walk, we can think of marathon runners, and then half a mile walk will feel less threatening. Whatever you are thinking, think the opposite for a while to see how it feels. This method is so powerful, that some subtlety is needed. There is always a chance of falling into the opposite bias.

Personal SWOT analysis

Most of the change we are willing to make follow the SWOT structure. We leverage our strengths, overcome our weaknesses, use opportunities, and try to hedge against threats. It is more natural for us to think in the opposite order.

Threats motivate most of us strongly and immediately. The biggest threat we all face is a financial threat. The markets are global and unstable, there are more entry-level jobs than opportunities for experienced professionals, and AI may threaten our job. The health threat is present only for people with certain issues or above a certain age. A twenty years old may feel invincible. After the age of forty, we start to feel the effects of extra pounds, old injuries, and poor choices. Regret and emotional distress is also a valid threat. Do we have a positive effect on the world? Did we fulfill our potential? While poor people are focused on survival, middle class and above is busy wit self-actualization, and both tasks are hard.

Opportunities come from time to time, with smaller opportunities happening significantly more often than huge break-throughs. Most opportunities come unexpected, usually from communication with other people and a deep realization that something should and can be done. Simply meeting a good mentor or role model is an interesting opportunity. Opportunities allow us to trade the risk of stagnation with the risk of unknown. Some opportunities happen because our resources free up. Courses end, children grow, debts get paid off, and a job takes less effort once we learn to do it well. We can always use the resources that free up to do something great.

Weaknesses often motivate us more than strengths. We often take our strengths for granted, but cannot forget ourselves the weaknesses. Curiously, other people judge us first by our strengths and achievements, and then by everything else. Anyway, the bigger our strengths the more acutely aware we become of our weaknesses. Some weaknesses are intellectual, others are physical. There are also cultural and ethical weaknesses we may address. From all weaknesses, ignorance is probably the easiest to fix. Fixing addictions is much harder. It is not clear if we can or should try to fix a character trait, like improving the social presence of introverts.

Strengths should be leveraged and used. Unfortunately, we tend to take them for granted. Our biggest strengths are so effortless for us, that we do not even notice them. Probably they are noticed by everybody but us. For example, I know a lot and learn fast, I am a good career advisor and I am very creative. Yet I do not really value these qualities in myself. Other people see them, appreciate them, and sometimes provide me with valuable feedback. Otherwise, I would not even notice these strengths. Not noticing our strengths, we do not value or leverage them as much as we should, and we do not invest enough in developing them. We kind of feel they are great the way they are, instead of understanding that by identifying and improving them we can make a huge change.

The fun and cool

Many people want to learn languages. I tend to want to learn new languages myself, although I know more than one or two languages pretty well. There is nothing bad about knowing languages and cultures. In fact, this can become a core strength. The real question is: how much is it reasonable to invest in a new language? Unless the language can provide huge opportunities, or address a huge weakness, the effort could be better used elsewhere. Then why do we invest so much in languages? Probably because it is perceived as fun and cool and easy to show off.

Meditation is also fun and cool. Studies show that meditation improves happiness by 10%. This is a huge difference. Yet, there is no way I can think of to show off your achievement in meditation. Even trying to do so is bad for your karma.

Writing a book or creating a painting, or creating music we generate something that makes us happy, that we can show off, and potentially it may create new opportunities.

Sports are good for everything: physical well-being, socialization, management of inner aggression. On the downside, they require a lot of investment in form of physical energy. We get tired when doing sports. We enjoy more and potentially benefit more from spending time in nature or with our loved ones, provided we allocate that time.

The worst sort of time spending is sitting in front of screens, yet this is also the easiest thing to do, as it requires a very little amount of focus, and provides immediate gratification in form of fun.

Why is fun so important? Because we need to trade off the resources between our goals and joys. Focusing everything on our goals disrupts some intricate balance in our psyche and may generate destructive behavior. The things we do when having fun are intended to bridge the gap between what we are forced to do and what we really want to do.

Identify the needs

So, what are we really looking for? Usually, people are very lousy in identifying their passions. Our hobbies may provide a glance at it.

Most of the time we are confused and want someone else to dictate an agenda and entertain us. That’s why we spend so much time near the TV. Then, we are overstressed and tired. So we want to relax and simply have fun. Sometimes we need a close human connection, maybe of a physical form. Food is an answer to all those issues, and that’s why we enjoy so much eating together.

If the work we do does not provide an outburst for our energy or aggression, a sense of belonging and the competitive drive, some sports do. Not so much doing the sport which is hard, but watching the sports, which is easy. If we simply need to be informed, we will be consuming news of all sorts. If we need to create, we will create.

There are constructive and destructive ways to satisfy every need that we have. As a part of our cognitive audit, we should identify the alternatives, and explore ways to optimize the portfolio.

Identify the self-worth

The things that we do typically optimize the perceived self-worth. How do we value ourselves? We weigh our money, education, social status, achievements, looks, physical well-being, family connections, spiritual situation, and many other traits. We cannot weigh them objectively, and the priorities vary widely between us. Modifying the priorities, we make different choices.

Our consumer culture is biased to give exaggerated high worth to superficial stuff: money, status, and looks. Embracing these ideals may result in destructive patterns. It makes sense to train to anchor of balance qualities, such as compassion, wisdom and inner peace, which are often cultivated by more traditional cultures. Valuing tradition does not stop us from pursuing knowledge or material success, but reduces the chance of ruin as we proceed on this path.

If we value the experience rather than possession, every human life becomes valuable, and so our perceived worth is less volatile. This reduces stress and improves the choices we make.

Integrity

To function properly in a complex society we need boundaries. If these boundaries function well for our needs and our actions, we have a feeling of integrity. If there is a conflict, our integrity gets compromised. The integrity is very important for how we value ourselves. More importantly, we value the integrity more when we lose it. Many people look at the mirror and hate what they see. Quite often this is due to integrity. The personal standards occasionally do not correspond to the achieved or the perceived image. Sometimes the behavior needs to change, but equally often we need to modify our boundaries.

Anorexia is possibly the most deadly mental disease. If a certain girl is anorexic, it could be because her boundaries or standards of beauty are well beyond what is healthy. When we work too hard for our own good, it is possible that our boundaries of the acceptable performance and success level are impossibly high. By practicing true compassion for people who are beyond our standards, valuing the experience more than the superficial, we can learn to move the standards and boundaries. Political correctness is not a substitute for empathy, and true empathy is not easy to develop.

Areas of life

We have only so many resources. By investing our resources one way or another, we create a necessary imbalance in our lives. Some people are book-smart, others are street-smart. Certain achievements are quite visible, but the stress that accompanies these achievements is less visible. Creative success is rarely accompanied by financial stability. Our SWOT will be different in each area of our lives, and so will be the importance of this area. Simply by modifying the priorities between the work, the home, the hobbies and other activities we can change who we are and how we live. Whatever analysis we do, we need to separate various areas of our lives, but then we need to integrate everything we discovered into the one and only life we have.

Homework

Try to do your cognitive audit now. Are you in a good position to make reasonable choices? Do you have the resources to change? What kind of person are you? What are your needs, and how they can be satisfied differently? Can you calibrate your perception by anchoring on complementary values? Do you need to make a change, and if so what this change will be?

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